Mobile Mini: ‘We’ll develop HGV drivers for ourselves’

Fast-growing Mobile Mini is blazing a trail in solving the nationwide HGV driver shortage with the launch of its own driver development programme.

To-date two employees at the hirer of portable accommodation and secure storage solutions have changed professions after completing the company’s fully-funded bespoke training programme.

What’s more, with the fleet expected to expand next year and beyond, the expectation is that Stockton-on-Tees headquartered Mobile Mini will train more of its own drivers.

From a national network of 16 branches, the company delivers portable units which provide anything from construction site accommodation to storage units for retail customers.

The development of the driver training programme comes as Mobile Mini aims to transform its transport operation from “industry-leading to world-class”.

That’s according to Chris Watcham, who joined Mobile Mini as health and safety director 12 years ago. For the past six years he has combined the role with that of transport manager following an internal restructuring, intended to give the company a greater fleet focus.

Watcham says: “As the company was expanding, we needed to ensure the transport operation was higher up the agenda in the boardroom and that our branch employees understood the costs of operating a vehicle fleet.”

He adds: “We started to put everything under the microscope. We introduced measures and raised levels of communications to increase the profile of transport within Mobile Mini because truck operation is core to the business.”

The spotlight on the fleet now becomes ever greater following the October 2016 appointment of Kevin Buckler as transport manager. His brief is to use his 25 years’ industry experience to identify operational areas that can be further enhanced to drive business efficiencies at Mobile Mini.

The company hopes to shortly notch gold accreditation to the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS) for the fourth consecutive year.

The catalyst for the launch of the HGV driver training programme was a newly acquired vehicle standing idle because of the inability to recruit a driver that met Mobile Mini’s requirements.

The training programme was subsequently developed using a mix of external training providers and the company’s own internal transport and safety team.

Rolled out in 2016 at a cost of £4,000 per employee, the elements include: medical, theory and hazard perception, driver training, driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) training, HIAB Training (lorry-mounted crane training), driver induction and road and crane mentoring.

Dwayne Mitch, previously a fitter in the Southampton depot, was the first employee to volunteer and complete the four-month programme. He has now been joined by Simon Wood, ex-yard foreman at the Wakefield branch.

Watcham says: “As new vehicles join the fleet we will develop our own drivers so reducing the time to hire. With the shortage of drivers and the skills that we require, recruiting drivers suitable for the company has been a real challenge.

“We recruited a couple of drivers but that didn’t work out. Many older drivers come with preconceived ideas about what the job involves and that didn’t fit with the culture of the company. We want to develop drivers to the way we work with our quality systems, focus on safety and customer service ethos. That’s why we are upskilling our own employees.”

Hopes are high that uptake for new HGV driver posts will come from across the business, but if vacancies are not filled then Watcham does not rule out external recruitment followed by enrolment on to the scheme.

For a number of years the truck industry has been concerned about the combined impact of an ageing professional HGV driver workforce and the lack of new entrants coming through to replace those who left the sector as a result of retirement or to pursue different careers.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) says there is already a shortage of 60,000 drivers, with an ageing workforce shedding another 40,000 by next year against an estimated requirement that the UK needs an extra 150,000 drivers by 2020 to deliver goods nationwide.

Watcham says: “The HGV driver shortage is not a problem that will disappear without employers recognising they need to make a change, and we hope companies will follow our lead to address the shortage.

“By offering existing employees the chance to gain further driving qualifications, we’re ensuring that our fleet is staffed by fully-trained and committed individuals who understand our company ethos. This investment will help us meet our high customer service standards, guaranteeing a consistently first class and safe delivery every time.”

Meanwhile, Mobile Mini claims to have one of the largest fleets of its kind in the country after late last year adding 15 vehicles and this year investing a further £3.7 million on eight Scania-based crane arm loader lorries featuring the latest engine technology to take the number to 50.

Mini Mobile continues to rely on third party logistics providers to deliver around half of its portable units but, says Watcham: “Our long-term aim is to perhaps move to a 75:25 split. We will never eradicate all third party logistics, but if we are to achieve our target there must be continued future expansion of the fleet.”

The company, which saw annual income hit a record £57.6m in 2015, a 9.5% increase on 2014, now employs more than 400 people and has in excess of 35,000 portable units for rent in varying sizes. They fulfil a wide range of on-location requirements including offices, staff canteens, meeting rooms, stores, accommodation, shower and toilet facilities to meet requirements that could include the creation of “a small village” at a major construction site.

In addition to the fleet of 50 HGV delivery vehicles, Mini Mobile also runs a fleet of branch-based service vans. The Ford Transits – two or three are located at each branch – are leased and driven by engineers as they travel to undertake site maintenance on portable units.

Mobile Mini buys the “high ups” for cost-effectiveness and, in partnership with loader crane supplier Fassi and bodybuilder Adcliffe, ensures that each vehicle complies with the FORS standard, while also adding bespoke features at the request of drivers as well as additional safety features prior to branch delivery.

The Scania trucks are acquired with the manufacturer’s seven-year repair and maintenance contract, which also dictates the company’s vehicle replacement cycle. Trucks typically average around 50,000 miles per annum and are sold through the trade on defleet.

The contract means that all service, maintenance and repair work and vehicle checks to meet Operator Licence requirements are undertaken at Scania dealers. Typically such work occurs overnight to keep vehicle downtime to an absolute minimum.

Watcham, who has more than 20 years’ professional safety experience, having previously worked in the rail industry on some of the UK’s major mainline projects, says: “Historically we had Scania and Mercedes-Benz trucks, but we went down the all-Scania route because we found the staff engaging and approachable, the support service met our requirements and the vehicle technology was advanced.

“Scania calls Mobile Mini a ‘perfect partner’. I believe in partnerships, allowing relationships to build rather than have fragmentation and a mix of suppliers.

“We have kept trucks beyond seven years, but we found that was the tipping point after which repair and maintenance costs increased with engines and gearboxes perhaps needing replacing. We now don’t go beyond that point.”

Watcham says the seven-year replacement cycle has proved to be a “win-win” for Mobile Mini as it also meant it kept the fleet fresh which aided company image and branding.

Mobile Mini uses Scania’s online fleet management reporting tool to measure performance including fuel usage, vehicle emissions and driver behaviour. However, it supplements that information with an in-vehicle tele-matics system delivering a raft of additional data.

As a result, league tables highlighting individual driver performance are published at branch level so employees can monitor their own standing against colleagues.

The measure is part of Mobile Mini’s focus on driver engagement that started more than three years ago.

Then the company asked drivers for their “wish list” of vehicle features that would help them in their day-to-day job.

More than half of requests are typically accommodated and they have included a repositioning of ladder racks at ground level so drivers do not have to clamber on to a truck; the use of twist locks when moving combination units instead of web straps; increased in-cab storage; and LED lights fitted on head boards so drivers have a better view of a truck when walking around it.

Watcham says: “We listen to our drivers. A lot of companies make the mistake of telling drivers what they believe is the right thing to do. But that can be unworkable and money is wasted.

“Telling a driver with perhaps 20 years’ experience what to do is not right if you have never sat behind the wheel of an HGV.”

FORS first came to Mobile Mini’s attention in 2012 when the company noticed an increase in customers requesting it as a contractual condition when delivering to their sites. As a result it has become the catalyst to the company’s advances in vehicle technology and focus on its people and processes.

In addition to the FORS-required accessories that are fitted to Mobile Mini’s vehicles, further items are added to help increase vehicle and driver safety.

They include upgrading the camera system from a forward dash cam and a reversing camera to a full all round 360o camera system,   providing drivers with additional scope to view blind spots around the vehicle as well as video footage of a journey. Additionally, reversing sensors are fitted to all vehicle and trailers providing an audible and visual warning in the cab to warn drivers an object is close when reversing.

Reversing manoeuvres resulting in damage to other vehicles and property were one of the major causes of crashes along with incidents caused by trucks changing lanes which led to Watcham declaring that “our insurance premiums were high”.

From averaging “an incident per week”, Mobile Mini suffered just four incidents in the first nine months of 2016 and has slashed its annual insurance premium by £100,000.

Acknowledging that there was initially some “push back from drivers” to the deployment of cameras, Watcham says: “We viewed the equipment as a driver aid in terms of protecting them and their licence as well as the company.”

Following a couple of accidents with blame placed on the Mobile Mini drivers, video footage proved otherwise and driver support was secured.

The service vans are also fitted with telematics and forward-facing dash cams so drivers’ efficiency is monitored.

Furthermore, in addition to using the Driver CPC cycle, Mobile Mini worked with the RHA to develop and deliver bespoke courses specific to the areas of risk associated with the company’s operations. Courses have included safe and fuel-efficient driving, load security, vehicle loading and unloading and professional driving to further improve drivers’ skills.

The recruitment of Buckler, a qualified HGV trainer, means future training will be delivered internally.

Additionally, footage from the cameras and telematics data is used during any accident investigation process and is viewed as a driver education tool.

The company is the only storage container company to be awarded FORS gold and it says the hat-trick of accreditations in consecutive years demonstrated its on-going commitment to safety and effective vehicle management policies.

Saying “safety is at the forefront of everything we do and shows how seriously we take our responsibilities as a fleet operator”, Watcham adds that the initiatives not only made transportation safer, but also provided a “good return on investment”.

With the recruitment of Buckler the focus for improvement will move to “the next level” with the business looking to drive a 5-10% reduction in its £1m a year fuel bill thus further reducing its carbon footprint; research perceived vehicle service, maintenance and repair savings from improved driver behaviour; further reduce vehicle downtime in partnership with suppliers; benefit from greater journey scheduling efficiencies; and further engage with drivers to deliver benefits to them and the company.

Watcham says: “We can deliver further financial savings and, by making individual branches aware of the costs versus the branch average, everyone will benefit because they will become more efficient and productive and that will help the business to grow.

“People development is key and if we deliver we will see some big wins. For example, dispatchers may need upskilling to deliver more efficient vehicle routing and branch managers may need help to better understand vehicle maintenance procedures.”

Buckler, who has joined from BSS Industrial, the distributor of pipeline and heating solutions, reports to Watcham along with a health and safety advisor and two lifting operations managers who also have a focus on the transport operation. Additionally, branch managers have a responsibility “for keeping the Operator Licence intact” and managing vehicles at a local level.

Looking forward, Watcham said: “Our number one aim is to maintain the standard we have achieved and improve operating efficiencies still further. We believe we have transformed Mobile Mini’s transport operation into one that is industry-leading, but we have the potential to be world class. We have built a great platform from which to push forward.”


Working with drivers to understand their needs and requirements has paid off for Mobile Mini

The single biggest challenge facing Chris Watcham in transforming the Mobile Mini fleet was to secure the support of the company’s drivers.

With a career in health and safety and joining Mobile Mini from the rail industry, he “got his head round” legislation and Operator Licence issues with regards to the fleet, and adds: “The risks are similar in both industries in that I needed to ensure people were engaged, trained and competent. I needed to listen to the drivers, who accepted they were accountable for their performance.”

Getting the drivers “onside” was, said Watcham, “a huge step-change”.

But, he adds: “Through communication, toolbox talks and involving them with improving the vehicles, we have changed the culture. But that only happened because as a business we engaged with them and worked with them to understand their needs and requirements.

“In my career I have learned that if you want to make change then you must get people on board and listen to them.

“It’s a two-way process. Many drivers have pre-conceived ideas, but when you are open with them and break down barriers they will help and cultural habits will change.”

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